2021 World Juniors: Players to Watch in Group B

In our second of two pieces previewing the 2021 IIHF U20 World Championships, we feature the draft-eligible players in Group B.

It’s going to be a real fight to see who finishes first in Group B.

As you’ll see below, Sweden features the best goaltending tandem in the tournament, the United States has high-end forwards who have played together for many years, and this year’s Russian squad is probably the most detail-oriented that we can remember.

There aren’t as many draft-eligible players among this group — only five among those three teams — but fans of the 67s can watch Marco Rossi on display, and there’s some intriguing talent coming out of the Czech Republic to keep your eye on for the next two drafts.

Let’s get into it.

Team Austria

Starting off with the newcomers to the 2021 World Juniors for their first tournament since 2011, Austria is without a doubt being led by their captain and star forward Marco Rossi. Everyone beyond that will likely be prying to survive against their more seasoned competitors, with their group of draft-eligible players plying their trade in the pretty-much-always-untouched Austrian U20 league.

The player besides Rossi to watch is forward Senna Peeters, a re-entry candidate off to a hot start in the J20 Nationell with seven goals in six games. Peeters had his fans in the scouting community last year as an energetic player who can crash the net and score — his 23 goals with the Halifax Mooseheads last season was enough to put him on the map. He’ll surely be seeing a lot of minutes for the Austrian team, and if he can do as much as keep his head above water against the powerhouses, it could be what’s needed to boost his D+1 season.

Team Czech Republic

In a draft year full of top defencemen, the lone draft-eligible player on the Czech Republic happens to be another good one. Stanislav Svozil is expected to take on a strong role at 17 years old, possessing some pro level experience that only a few of his teammates can match. This is already his second full season playing in the Czech pro league for HC Kometa Brno, and to date has performed pretty well as a transitional defender. He has the raw tools to potentially evolve into a well-rounded player at both ends of the ice, which is already putting him in the conversation as a first round prospect. The World Juniors could be the perfect time to showcase that.

There’s two more players I want to shout out, the first being overage goaltender Nick Malik, who will be battling Lukas Parik (LAK) and Jan Bednar (DET) for the starting gig. He played in their first preliminary game, so he may already have the leg up. Here’s what we had to say in our draft-year profile comparing Malik and Bednar:

[Bednar] excels at being a top notch athletic goaltender, just not with the same explosiveness as Bednar. He’s also more sound positionally, although that’s still a significant area where he’ll need improvement. While Bednar certainly jumps out more with his flash, there’s a bit more composure to Malik’s style of play by comparison. In both cases the drafting team will be betting on raw athletic tools with the future project of working out their overall stability.

The other player I’m interested in is David Jiricek, a late birthday for the 2022 draft. The right-shot defenceman already has three points in 14 games so far in the Czech pro league, a mark that only one other D-1 defenceman has accomplished in the last 20 years — his WJC teammate Svozil! There’s a few older drafted defencemen on the Czech team too, so his minutes may be limited. But this is unlikely to be the last we’ll see of Jiricek in this tournament.

Team Russia

It was interesting watching how Russia lined up at the annual Karjala Cup, because unlike past years where they’ve featured some real superstar talent up front, this year’s star is in net with Yaroslav Askarov. Outside of the goalie position, this team is going to try to beat you with pro-ready habits and depth up and down their lineup. That’s readily apparent on defence, where second-rounders Artemi Knyazev (2019 - SJS) and Yan Kuznetsov (2020 - CGY) anchor a group that includes surprise first-round pick Skakir Mukhamadullin (2020 - NJD) and some later round picks. This means that draft-eligible defenders Daniil Chayka and Kirill Kirsanov might actually get some decent minutes — a rarity among Russian U20 teams. Both are simple, mobile defenders who can play in every zone. Chayka, who we featured last week, has some pro-ready offence to his game, while Kirsanov has graduated from the MHL and has played 14 KHL games with top-flight SKA St. Petersburg this season. Kirsanov will likely feature in steady third-pair minutes, and while he isn’t as creative as Chayka, he’s a strong decision-maker — especially in transition — and will be looking to get the puck up to speedy Russian forwards like Mikhail Abramov and Vasili Ponomarayov.

Team Sweden

Team Sweden is definitely built from the net-out this year, featuring Tampa Bay’s Hugo Alnefelt as the likely starter, and a potential T15 pick in Jesper Wallstedt at backup. We talked about Wallstedt last week, and in all honesty, his performance against men in Luleå this season indicates that he could take on — and excel — as Sweden’s number one netminder despite that being a rarity for U19 goaltenders in this tournament.

On defence, the team is missing William Wallinder and Helge Grans, but still feature five players who were taken in the first two rounds of the NHL Draft — headlined by Arizona’s Victor Söderström, Edmonton’s Philip Broberg, and Los Angeles’ Tobias Björnfot. The depth in primo talent among this group meant that even likely top-10 pick Simon Edvinsson didn’t make this year’s squad.

With 2021-eligible William Eklund is missing the tournament due to a positive COVID-19 test, the lone draft-eligible forward is HV71’s left-shot winger Oskar Olausson. The 6-foot-2 forward was ranked 16th in Bob McKenzie’s latest ranking and will likely feature in bottom-six minutes in this tournament. He’s got a fantastic top gear, powered by his first couple of steps, and he really grew into his frame last year. We’re looking for him to put it all together this year, and so far, he’s been doing just that — earning a regular role on HV71’s men’s team as an 18-year-old.

Team USA

With Shane Pinto starring in last year’s tournament, and Jake Sanderson likely to get a prime role with this year’s United States team, Sens fans have been watching their top draft picks star in this squad for the last five years. Sanderson looks to be paired with Anaheim’s Jackson Lacombe on the second-pair, and has already made plays like this through the pre-tournament games:

Up front, the lone draft-eligible forward is Michigan’s Matthew Beniers, who we covered last week. He’s expected to be on the team’s second line with 2019 top-15 picks Matthew Boldy (MIN) and Cole Caufield (MTL), and it’ll be a fascinating test to see if he can keep up. Wherever Beniers has gone, he’s exceeded expectations, and I’m nearly beyond the point of doubting his high-end ability here; he’s a rare player who does everything so well that you wonder if any one skill is high end, before realizing that he wouldn’t be able to do anything without his high-end processor — his standout skill.

Are there any players you’re looking forward to watching take the ice over the next two weeks? Let us know in the comments!

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